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New Leader of Synagogue Initiative Touting Tech to Bolster Jewish Life

July 10, 2002
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When a group of philanthropists eager to help transform synagogue life went looking for a leader, they required nearly unheard-of credentials.

Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, known as STAR, sought a candidate intimately familiar with synagogue life and well-versed in the complexities of Jewish communal life.

“They needed someone who knew the synagogue world, ideally someone who worked as a congregation rabbi,” said Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, a leading synagogue renewal advocate who was not involved in the search.

“But a lot of rabbis don’t get how the Jewish community functions.”

By all accounts, STAR found that rare set of skills in Rabbi Hayim Herring, 43, of Minneapolis, who this month officially became executive director of a highly visible, and potentially powerful, force in the national synagogue renewal movement.

“This was an inspired hire,” Schwarz said of Herring.

Launched with a bang in December 1999 with an $18 million, five-year pledge by mega-philanthropists Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt, STAR was aimed at making systematic upgrades in American synagogue life.

In September 2000, STAR held a “summit” in Chicago, which was followed by regional meetings among synagogue leaders.

It focused much of its efforts on high technology and the Internet. STAR initially awarded $565,750 in grants ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 in 2001 to 25 communities in North America, many of whom matched the grants to total some $1.1 million.

But the group suffered a big blow last year with the death of Schusterman, who was the primary visionary behind STAR and committed $11.25 million to the project.

His wife, Lynn, stepped into the vacuum, committing to maintain her husband’s funding and remaining fully active in STAR.

Herring said he has already met several times with Lynn Schusterman to discuss STAR, and she is “deeply committed” to her husband’s vision.

Still, Schusterman’s death, coming early in STAR’s history, left STAR as “a vision that was not fully formed,” Herring said.

Now Herring aims to build on those early efforts. The group has relocated from Chicago to Minnesota and is about to detail its 2002 round of grants to 12 applicants.

Herring says he is not content to sit back and watch the money get spent.

“I want to assess the impact of the grants that have already been awarded,” he said. “Was it implemented in a way that was promised? How has it made the synagogue more effective? How is it changed Jewish life?”

Herring is well-suited to analyzing those questions, say renewal experts.

In 1984, Herring was ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and joined the 1,300-family Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis as assistant rabbi.

Seven years later he became one of the youngest rabbis in the shul’s history to be named senior rabbi, and in 1995 he retired to lead a Jewish identity and renewal program for the Minneapolis Federation for Jewish Service.

Later Herring earned a doctorate in organization and management from the virtual Capella University’s School of Business, where he focused on nonprofit management.

A senior scholar at the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies, Herring recently co-authored, with Barry Shrage of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, “Jewish Networking: Linking People, Institutions and Community.”

In this work, Herring argues that Jewish communal life should not be based on a series of concentric circles, each marked by a decreasing level of commitment, all arrayed around a single magnetic core of the synagogue.

Instead, he argues that Jewish communal life should be built on the networked business model, in which technologically adept organizations — while retaining their autonomy and identity — join to combine strengths and rapidly respond to consumer needs.

Much of that work seems to inform his approach to STAR.

“The emphasis is not so much on fixing the synagogue, but on working in partnership with synagogues and congregations, saying how can we as a foundation work together to help renew American Jewish life,” he said.

Synagogues should be “a place where people can find community and create it while they’re there,” he said.

“A spiritual place helps people find God in their lives, and helps them impart God to other people. It’s a place where Jewish values are lived out, and also acquired.”

In contemporary American culture, a Jew can be anonymous just about anywhere, he said.

But a synagogue is a place “where people are known, valued, welcomed and empowered to bring their vision of Jewish life into a community.”

Some synagogues are successfully at building communities, he said, citing Orthodox shuls in particular.

But the Orthodox model only succeeds to a point, he said, citing a recent survey that found that only 8 percent of adult Jews in America are Orthodox.

And for the estimated 30 percent of Jews who are not affiliated at all, synagogue life remains irrelevant, he said.

“It’s easy to be Jewish in America today without a synagogue. You can go into any bookstore and find Jewish spiritual books, you can hook into the Net and find an online service.”

In other words, he said, “You can get your Jewish fix outside of Jewish institutions today. But the synagogue is such a basic infrastructure to the community, why not use it more to help people build their Jewish lives?”

Herring believes STAR can use the same technology Jews can use to avoid synagogue to steer them back to these foundations of Jewish communal life.

Several areas currently being developed include using database management to help synagogues track members’ interests and skills, Web-casting speeches and events, getting synagogue lay and professional staffers to use online distance learning, and bringing young, tech-savvy but unaffiliated Jews back to the fold.

One way to do that is to help synagogues develop robust Web sites and get those sites on larger Jewish portals to the Net that young Jews surfing the Web would find, he said.

Younger Jews “are on the Web, living in the global village, but they’re not walking into synagogue. Hopefully, we can catch them where they are.”

Whether STAR will be able to follow the network model and build on the strengths of other synagogue renewal movements such as Synagogue 2000 and the Experiment in Congregational Education remains an open question.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of the six-year-old synagogue renewal effort Synagogue 2000, said the mission of “S2K” is to “roll up our sleeves” while “working directly” with rabbis, cantors and other synagogue leaders, and it’s clear STAR “doesn’t want to replicate that.”

“What STAR will do ultimately remains to be seen,” he said. “STAR has been looking for its appropriate role in the synagogue renewal movement, and finally they have an executive director everybody admires.”

For his part, Herring says he’s confident that there’s plenty of work for all of these synagogue-change groups.

“The competition is those that aren’t involved in Jewish life,” he said, “not one another.”

Schwarz agrees.

Ultimately these different initiatives will leave an impact, he said, because “many people independently have come to the realization that the American synagogue needs work.”

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